Month: February 2012

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Cynthia Enloe: War and Feminism

I am what I call a practising feminist. I identify as one and try to act as one. I have never taken a class in feminist theory, or for that matter, more than two social studies classes post secondary school (No, I am not proud of this, ignorance is never good, have the rest of my life to change that). Much of everything I know about feminism, I owe to my intelligent and incisive partner. So when I go to lectures by feminist theory giants like Cynthia Enloe, I never know what to expect, or what I will learn. I am glad I went to the University of Victoria last night for their Landsdowne lecture because Prof. Enloe’s talk  – “How Can You Tell if We Are Living in a ‘Post-war’ Era? Some Feminist Warnings” gave me quite a bit to think about. Her books, especially Bananas, Peaches and Bases, and The Curious Feminist are widely read and quoted, and the reverence and respect the audience had for her was apparent. The idea that gender roles are very distinct in war time is not revolutionary. Enloe was very particular to emphasise that a government’s successful conduct of a war depends very heavily on all the unpaid work done by the mothers and wives of the “warriors” (my word). Women’s patriotism is invoked in this endeavour to keep the war going. In that sense, the two most common genders remember war very differently.

Enloe had some interesting things to say about how wars never end in people’s minds, how “post-war” is a gross simplification, and that this memory is sometimes a problem. Enloe talked extensively about what happens when women push past their assigned war gender roles and start to organise and advocate. Cindy Sheehan came up frequently. Widowhood, a powerful war symbol which is supposed to be suffered in silence, can be a powerful unifying influence for collective organizing. Enloe talked about how ‘war widows’ in Iraq had organised to try and make conditions better for them after huge income and job losses in addition to partner loss (link is her book about it). Enloe talked quite a bit about how army systems actively discourage this kind of organising and public advocacy by the women of war, even using the spouses of army superiors and the army’s natural hierarchy to keep women in place. Enloe also, in the middle of telling the audience how army “spouses” are now discouraged from writing break-up letters to their active army mates, broke into an impromptu rendition of Dear John, gotta love that!

I had an issue that was half forming in my head during questions, so I did not ask it, and chatting with my lecture-mate on our walk back clarified my thoughts a little better. It is clear that war’s effects on people vary widely by nation, gender and class (three big ones, I’m sure there are many). So, it would have been interesting to hear a bit more about why gender identity and class identity rarely cross national boundaries to affect the conduct of wars, let alone end them quickly. Yes, people routinely bring up the suffering of fellow identity groups, whether they be women, or poor, or professor, or journalist, but gender is a really big deal as far as raw numbers go. Wars could not be waged successfully without the participation of many parts of a population that may have more in common with their identity groups across the “border” than with their fellow citizens. It is really important to think about the primacy of nationalism, and nation-state identity in actively subsuming other identities in a war’s cause. This is part, and design of the patriarchy of a war-based nation state. Few words are more incendiary than “traitor”. Of course, I am sure whole books have been written about this (side effect of knowing no theory, the tendency to assume that your thoughts are original and unique), that I might have to hunt down.

While Enloe exhorted the audience to think beyond borders at the beginning of her talk, describing the “Vietnam” war as the US-Vietnam war and how war casualties of the other war participants are rarely mentioned, she still could not shake her nationhood and American centricity off during the talk as successfully as she may have done in her books and theory. She had this interesting and useful device of writing some numbers on the board at the beginning of the talk and repeatedly referred to them through the talk. Most of these numbers were North American war casualties, which I found to be a bit limiting, considering her talk was delivering the opposite message on casualties. She exhorted us to refer to war titles by more location-neutral descriptors, like the US-Vietnam war instead of the Vietnam war, but she did not take the next step of habituating her audience to do that, repeatedly referring to the Iraq War (which one?), or the Gulf War (Which gulf, which war?). As she said, war titling is political, I would not be happy to go to a lecture and have to listen constantly to “the Indian mutiny” (or worse, the Sepoy Mutiny).

Prof. Enloe’s take away message on war was “Ask feminist questions, be realistic”. Yes I will, and not just for war.

Weaver and the Tarsands: What the media missed.

It appears that Canada (or the part I follow) is all a twitter about an interesting analysis ($$$) by prominent climate scientist Andrew Weaver and his colleague Neil Swart that counts up all fossil fuel reserves, then converts them into global temperature increases based solely on their combustion CO2 emissions potential. It turns out that oilsand reserves are dwarfed by the available coal and natural gas reserves and overall tarsands contribution to temperature increase is modest.

If the entire Alberta oil-sand resource (that is, oil-in-place) were to be used, the associated carbon dioxide emissions would induce a global mean temperature change of roughly 0.36 °C (0.24–0.50 °C)  However, considering only the economically viable reserve of 170 billion barrels reduces this potential for warming by about tenfold (to 0.02–0.05 °C), and if only the reserve currently under active development were combusted, the warming would be almost undetectable at our significance level.

The Canadian media has chosen to play up just the fact that on a global scale, the project will result in a small increase in global temperature, so the oilsands are okay to exploit.

Climate expert says coal not oilsands real threat – CBC

Other articles pretty much say the same thing,  Prof. Weaver’s quoted comments don’t help either:

“The conventional and unconventional oil is not the problem with global warming,”  “The problem is coal and unconventional natural gas.” “One might argue that the best strategy one might take is to use our oil reserves wisely, but at the same time use them in a way that weans us of our dependence on coal and natural gas”

Weaver’s comments to the media posit this as an either-or, coal and natural gas = bad, oil = okay. Knowing him to be a very intelligent person, I suspect this is some selective quoting. Also, oil is primarily used to fuel transportation, coal and natural gas are used for electricity generation, so I am curious as to what Prof. Weaver is suggesting here as far as using oil reserves to wean us off coal use? Would the plan be to use all the money that we get from exploiting the tarsands to develop an electricity infrastructure that puts efficiency, reduced electricity use, 100% renewables first? I wish! I don’t see that happening. Alberta is currently powered mostly by coal, and if the Federal government is serious in its stated goal to phase new coal out (which is fantastic), then Alberta would switch to natural gas to fuel its tarsands exploitation, and that would not be okay either! Also, these infrastructures are all linked. A lot of BC’s natural gas and proposed big damaging dams like Site C are designed to fuel the tarsands. A province and by extension, country that makes most of its money by taking the resources it was provided for free, and selling them at great profit is not likely to want to transition away from that.

It was interesting that a few weeks back, Mark Jaccard, yet another prominent BC climate scientist (we are blessed) looked at the same issue and came to the following conclusion.

Canadian tarsands must contract as part of a global effort to prevent a 4 degree increase in temperatures and catastrophic climate change.

Vancouver Sun – January 26, 2012

So, is this Jaccard vs. Weaver?

Not really.

Is the Swart and Weaver message that simple? Are they actually saying that it is okay to exploit away because it makes no difference?

The media should start by reading the byline:

The claimed economic benefits of exploiting the vast Alberta oil-sand deposits need to be weighed against the need to limit global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

That’s how the paper starts. It then calculates global warming potentials based on reserves, current production, total “in place” (present, but not always exploitable) and shows that coal and natural gas are by far the greatest potential contributors. This is of course simply because we have much greater reserves of coal and natural gas, so their global warming potential is going to be huge. The paper makes no mention of rate of use, or whether it is humanly possible to use all that coal and natural gas, and what kind of population growth, and per-capita consumption that would entail.

Here’s a very important calculation from the paper that will be lost in the details. To limit temperature rise to 2 °C or less, the allowed, cumulative per person future carbon consumption is 85 tons of carbon. The per-capita carbon potential of the tarsands alone to US and Canada is 65 tons of carbon. So, by itself, the proven reserves (10% of what’s there) of the tarsands can eat up 75% of our allowed carbon budget, not so small, is it.

Here’s what Swart and Weaver have to say about trajectory:

The eventual construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would signify a North American commitment to using the Alberta oilsand reserve, which carries with it a corresponding carbon footprint

Here’s the last paragraph from the paper, another big trajectory argument.

If North American and international policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2 °C they will clearly need to put in place measures that ensure a rapid transition of global energy systems to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting sources, while avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels

Absolutely, 100% agreed, but this is not what the media message is at all, interesting.

So Swart and Weaver point out that we need to avoid commitments to new infrastructure promoting fossil fuel dependence, and that building projects like Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway signal a serious commitment to using the entire tarsands. The message in the paper is much more nuanced, and more measured than what’s in the media, not surprising.

I have long since come to the conclusion that this is not about counting of individual carbon atoms and their non-measurable global warming contributions, of course any single project will not tip us over one way or the other. It is about trajectory. To use two smoking analogies, the argument against smoking is not that the next cigarette will kill you, it is that smoking will kill many people in a population over a lifetime. More aptly in this case, the argument is that  Grand River Enterprises, a small Canadian cigarette concern, doesn’t contribute as much to smoking deaths as does Imperial Tobacco, so it is somehow different and okay.

Every major fossil fuel commitment we make is a commitment we do not make to reducing consumption, or increasing renewable use. Every foreign policy/domestic policy decision we take to keep our dollar high to get maximum revenue from the tarsands to shareholders (not the population) is a commitment to not building renewable infrastructure, or spending money on energy efficiency. So, trajectories count, and that is the underlying message from Swart and Weaver.

To finish it off, here’s the PhD Comics Science News Cycle, which is very apropos.

PS: Is Weaver and the Tarsands a good band name?


Joe Romm of climate progress responds to the paper here, thanks @softgrasswalker

And from comments, looks like Prof Weaver was on the CBC this morning, reprising his usual climate hawk self, will listen when they put the audio up.

Here’s Prof. Weaver in the Huffington Post commenting on the study. More about this when I don’t have work to do.


Swart, Neil C., and Andrew J. Weaver. “The Alberta oil sands and climate.” Nature Clim. Change advance online publication (February 19, 2012).

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Murray Langdon and the Role of Government

Murray Langdon of Victoria area radio and news outfit CFAX talks about municipal golf courses and tries to connect the Municipality of Saanich’s role in running a golf course with a much larger question around government, and “money”.

I’ve already been inundated with a ream of people who have stated that rec centres, garbage pick-up, landscaping, etc, has always been done by the municipality. That may be true. What I’m asking is should cities and towns be doing that. For example, we know that rec centres lose money each and every year…

via Murray Langdons Comment

The role of government, whatever level it might be, is to maximise the welfare of the people it serves, not some of its people, but most of them. So, looking at government “costs” alone in deciding the role of government is dangerously incomplete. What you actually have to do is to total up the costs for government and the people being served by the government, and judge whether there is an overall benefit to a municipality providing a service. Trying to be pragmatic about it, here are some of the things I look at:

  1. Is the good/service provided discretionary? Meaning, would I be able to live a reasonably satisfactory life without the service?
  2. If the good/service is non-discretionary ( I need it for a satisfactory life), then does it show characteristics of moral hazard (if some people don’t participate, it affects everyone), and would the provision of the service benefit from risk pooling (it works better if we’re all in it together) and mitigate issues of adverse selection (people who need services most are least able to afford them)?
  3. Is the good/service market amenable? (despite what free market fundamentalists may have you believe, Adam Smith did not think that every good/service could fit into a free market paradigm). If market worthy, is there any additional benefit to having a “public option”?
  4. What parts of a good/service are a natural monopoly, and what parts are amenable to market based competition (highways vs. cars)?
  5. When looking at costs and benefits, it’s not enough just look at direct costs like construction, salaries, etc, but also at more intangible measures like decision fatigue,(after a certain threshold, every decision you take degrades the next one) social capital (community relations, cooperation and confidence), creative capital (the ability to attract people to your community), environmental capital and so much more.

Immediately, dumping golf, recreation, and water and sewage services into the same pot makes no sense.

Let’s look at golf, it’s discretionary, and given the proliferation of golf courses in the area, a reasonably competitive good/service (disclaimer: I don’t golf). If Saanich stopped providing golf services, some people would end up paying more, but this would not affect a vast majority of people in the area. So, I wouldn’t shed a tear if Saanich’s golf course was privatised (I would be happier if it became a park, but that’s a different argument!).

Let’s look at recreation centres – Murray Langdon says this:

For example, we know that rec centres lose money each and every year. But we have examples of private recreation facilities, (in Langford for example) that are not only affordable but actually make money. For some reason, people assume that if it’s not run by a municipality, it will be expensive. Well, I have news for you. It is expensive and it may be because it’s run by a municipality.

I am confused, what Langford recreation centre is he talking about? (I don’t live in Langford, or hardly ever visit) The Westshore Parks and Rec Society runs the recreation centres, and it appears to be a joint effort by Westshore communities.

West Shore Park & Recreation is governed by the West Shore Parks & Recreation Society’s Board of Directors  Each municipalities contribution, through tax requisition, assists in the operation of the parks and recreation facilities.

Putting Langford aside, clearly, the public health benefits of increased physical activity make exercise a non-discretionary item (some may disagree!) Community based (whether run by the municipality or not) recreation centres have many benefits that are not measured just by their profit-loss statements. They are often the only option for family-centric, community centric (as opposed to individual centric) recreation. I can’t go to a private gym with my partner (real) and kids (hypothetical), and have all of us participate in  activities at the same time. My partner and I would have to schedule different workouts, then enrol the progeny in a separate swimming or soccer class, find/take turns in baby sitting, etc. So, not having community based recreation increases costs to society + government, while possibly (and not always) reducing government “costs”. The social capital of having community recreation centres, the public health benefits of encouraging exercise, I could go on, the intangible benefits are high. The YMCA, which I am a member of, is a non-profit community run recreation centre, and this model works as well.

Water and Sewer – These are non-discretionary, monopoly driven services not really market based. Construction, some maintenance, value added services, may be amenable to competition, but not the management, oversight and long-term stewardship. While the BC provincial government and various Federal governments have been trying to privatise various commons resources, third-party evidence points to no cost savings.

Here’s a test: Talk about BC Liquor!

The job of a public policy analyst is to consider the costs/benefits of the society as a whole. One does not read government balance sheets the same way one would read a corporation’s balance sheet.

Photo from GibsonGolfer Flickr photostream used under a Creative Commons License.